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Gearhead: Virtualization mojo

Gearhead: Virtualization mojo

I know you know this but I'll say it anyway: Virtualization is the hottest ticket in the IT biz. But some people don't understand there are multiple ways to virtualize a computing environment.

Consider Microsoft's Virtual PC for Mac. This system provides what appears to be an Intel PC platform running on a PowerPC processor under OS X. This type of virtualization is called emulation and relies on emulating an entire hardware environment, processor and all devices, in software. While this works fine it has one significant problem: a huge performance overhead because emulating a processor in software takes a lot of processing power.

Another example of virtualization by emulation is PearPC, which emulates PowerPC hardware on Intel processors.

An alternative to emulation is native virtualization, which creates virtual machines on the core host processor, resulting in less overhead because the processor can execute all instructions at hardware speeds. This is the method used by Microsoft's Virtual PC, which runs only on Intel processors under Windows.

The introduction of processors from both Intel and AMD that include hardware support for virtualization gives native virtualization a performance boost.

Products that implement native virtualization and can use hardware assistance if it's available include VMware Workstation and Parallels.

As if that isn't enough, other options include:

-- Paravirtualization, which is like native virtualization but requires "guest" operating systems to be modified (for example, XEN now owned by Citrix and VMware ESX.

-- Operating system virtualization, which creates virtual machines (also called virtual environments or virtual servers) from the host operating system (such as Virtuozzo.)

-- Application virtualization which encapsulates applications (for example, Microsoft Application Virtualization.

I bring all of this up to position the product I want to discuss today: MojoPac from RingCube Technologies. Running with Windows XP only, MojoPac gives you, in effect, a portable Windows XP desktop using operating system virtualization to create an isolated Windows XP guest virtual machine that runs alongside the host Windows XP.

The reason I describe MojoPac as a portable desktop is that it isn't installed on your PC -- it can only be installed on and run from a USB 2.0-interfaced mass storage device, such as a flash drive (nerd stick) or USB-interfaced disk drive. As you might guess, it is better to use a disk-based storage device for performance reasons (an iPod is a good choice as it is fast and something you usually carry around).

In a MojoPac virtual machine you can only run applications and access data installed on USB device hosting MojoPac or on other removable media on the host PC -- the host's network drives and hard disk drives are invisible. Similarly, applications running on the host operating system can't access the MojoPac system, which makes MojoPac a good solution for accessing your portable content using a public PC.

Where MojoPac scores over other virtualization products is in not requiring any drivers or modifications to the host operating system. The downsides are that MojoPac only works with Windows XP and requires that you are logged in with administrator privilege for MojoPac to run.

Installing MojoPac is pretty easy, although on flash drives there are several points at which you click on "next" and nothing seems to happen for an uncomfortably long period. The MojoPac installer needs to provide some kind of response to show it is working; a simple "please wait" immediately on clicking "next" would be better.

We'll dig deeper into MojoPac next week.

Gibbs exercises his mojo in Ventura, California. Get your groove on at gearhead@gibbs.com.


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